Most of the shabu-shabu entrées start with a plate of vegetable matter: lots of Napa cabbage and cress; one piece each of broccoli, tofu, carrot, and bean-curd skin; enoki mushrooms; a slice of an unusual mushroom; a section of corn on the cob; and two squares of hard tofu. Each diner also has a choice of starches: a sizeable bowl of rice (sticky and aromatic), a half-bowl of udon noodles, or about the same proportion of fine bean-thread vermicelli. Save these for last.
One big innovation at Shabu-Zen is the addition of fancy Japanese beef ($68/“Japan A”; $48/“B”; $28/“Australian” — likely wagyu raised down under). The Phoenix invested in the A, and it was quite good. This beef is so highly marbled that the white fat is the field color, and the light red stripes of lean muscle are the marbling. When poached lightly, it’s beefy and wonderful. Regular beef, sampled on the surf and turf ($16.95), was mostly red, also had a lot of marbling (the usual white), and cooked up tougher, but was certainly easy to eat and well-flavored. I am going to guess it was chuck London broil. Your other meat choices on the surf and turf are chicken, pork, or lamb.
The surf part is about the same as the seafood assortment ($11.95). I liked that this entrée didn’t have any shrimp. Instead, there was salmon, a white fish, squid, scallops, and slices of fish sausage. The vegetable assortment ($11.95) is the basic vegetable platter, plus wood-ear fungus, frozen cubes of soft tofu, taro, green baby bok choy, a mushroom ball (rubbery but mushroom flavored), and some pieces of gluten. This last item, two roughly hemispherical hunks cut like the cross-hatch patterns you see on Chinese squid, was rubbery to begin with but cooked up rather tasty. The vegetarian plate also included some knots of precooked noodles (don’t try this at home).
With all these entrées, you’ll want to poach with the wire scoop provided, dip them in the soy sauce and other mix-ins, and enjoy them as morsels. I think next time I will actually reserve the cabbage and cress for the soup phase, when the broth has been flavored by all the meat, mushrooms, seafood, and such.
Shabu-Zen has a short but notable and inexpensive wine list, including a Cellar 8 non-vintage merlot ($5/glass; $19/bottle). It had more spice and structure than a right-bank Bordeaux that costs three times as much. Of course, the natural accompaniment is sake (a diverse list) or Asian beer, a relative bargain at $3.95. Smoothies are also popular, though I would hold off until after dinner.
If you don’t opt for the smoothie, there’s a complementary red bean–barley soup for dessert that’s cold and barely sweetened. I like this kind of thing, but for most of my table it was a very low-calorie dessert — because they didn’t like it.
Shabu-Zen’s Allston location is large, even though half the room was blocked off. The floor has been redone in slate and granite. Pottery and brush paintings in niches inspire thoughts of Asia, while three plasma TVs inspire thoughts of bar-restaurants — only the one showing the Food Network had sound. (Rumor has it that Rachel Ray loves shabu-shabu and visited the Chinatown restaurant.)
For non-famous diners, my hunch is that this cuisine is best for second and third dates. There’s plenty of distraction, but you’re no longer afraid to eat soup in front of each other.
Robert Nadeau can be reached atRobtNadeau@aol.com.